‘Divide and rule’ or ‘divide and conquer’ was a policy implemented by many of the Western empires during their colonisation of the world. The idea was to divide and break up large concentrations of power into smaller, more manageable threats. Once these divisions had been created, either ethnically, geographically or religiously, the colonisers were able to stoke internal conflicts that avoided a unified anti-colonialist rebellion.
In this article, I will focus on the British Empire as an example in India and Ireland. The idea of divide and rule is relevant now because it, although less explicitly, still plagues today’s society. Racial and religious divisions are focused on by politicians and the media in order to stoke conflict between the lower classes whilst maintaining power at the top.
In India, there was a large minority of Muslims (around a third of the population) who had, for hundreds of years, lived side by side with the majority Hindu population. After a cross-religious rebellion threatened British rule in 1857, divide and rule became a British priority in order to maintain power.
When limited franchise was given to the Indian people, the British did so by providing separate electorates for Muslims and Hindus. Muslims could vote for Muslim politicians in Muslim seats sowing the seeds of a divided nation. The All Indian National Congress, a cross-religion, anti-imperialist party tried to maintain unity throughout the country, yet the British would label them a purely Hindu party. Thus, in opposition to a ‘Hindu Raj’ the Muslim League lead by Mohammad Ali Jinnah rose in opposition demanding a separate state for Muslims – Pakistan.
During World War Two when Gandhi and the Congress led the anti-imperialist Quit India Movement in protest to their forced involvement in the War, the British supported the Muslim League because of their support for the war effort. Throughout the 1940s, Hindu-Muslim violence and rioting became so extreme and the divisiveness had become so entrenched that the creation of East and West Pakistan became an inevitability.
Although after the War the British could no longer rule India due to the financial decimation of war, the divisions that they had endeavoured to create throughout the previous decades remained. The Partition of India led to the deaths of 1-3 million and the displacement of 17 million as a result of border lines being hastily drawn on a map. The rule did not last but the legacies of the divisions did – there have been four wars between the two nuclear powers since both countries gained independence.
In Ireland, the British identified the northern counties as the most fiercely resistant to British rule. They created the Plantation of Ulster in 1609 and English colonists aggressively settled the region in order to restrict Irish rebellion and create a division within the country.
The entirety of Ireland was made a part of the United Kingdom and many exclusionary laws were placed on Catholics within the now Protestant ruled country. As well as other laws and restrictions, Catholics were not allowed to inherit Protestant land, be a member of the Parliament of Ireland, or to vote.
By the 1900s, there were calls for Irish independence from British rule. Although independence was gained for the majority of the country, Northern Ireland opted out of the new Irish Constitution as a result of the colonialist settlement of the North.
From the 1960s to the 1990s ‘The Troubles,’ which were fought between the Catholic nationalist IRA and the British Army, saw the decimation of Belfast as a result of decades of ongoing war. Although the conflict was ‘settled’ with the Good Friday Agreement of 1999 in which the Republic of Ireland withdrew its territorial claims over the 6 counties of Ulster, conflicts and division continue to this day.
Belfast is literally divided by so-called ‘peace walls’ that separate the Catholic and Protestant communities. Catholic, nationalists in Belfast remain an oppressed people in Protestant dominated Northern Ireland as a result of the policy of ‘divide and rule’ used to separate and subdue a rebellious population. Divisions within the country were created in order to make it an easier country to overthrow and colonise, yet the legacies of that are hugely damaging and long-lasting.
These two examples of divide and rule are relevant in today’s society because, although we do not live in a time of explicit empires and colonialism, we remain in an unequal, unfair society where the majority of power and wealth is held by large, immoral corporations. They influence politics for their own gain and stoke divisions to their benefit.
This is most abundantly clear in the current United States climate where Trump’s administration thrives on the divisions that they create and fuel. Working class, white Trump supporters are drawn into the xenophobic and racist rhetoric of Trump and his Fox News support that blame their lack of prosperity on immigrants, Jews, African Americans and other minorities. In actual fact, it is people like Trump and his political and economic empire that hold the wealth, however the divisions that they fuel inhibit a united rebellion against the increasing wealth gap and maintain divisions between working class people.
Although less explicit, this problem is endemic in the UK as well. Politicians and the media, who are incredibly closely aligned, focus on and exacerbate racial and religious divisions that pit the population against one another instead of aligned in opposition against the top. Syrian families who are escaping a horrific war are made out to look like nothing more than terrorists by these tabloid rags proliferating anti-Muslim stereotypes. In one incident The Sun made the debunked claim that ‘one in five Brit Muslims sympathise with jihadis.’ Similarly, The Daily Mail used old photos of injured policemen that were incidentally taken from an EDL rally in 2014 and used them to make the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests seem violent and unruly. In 2016, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) singled out the Sun and the Daily Mail for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology” that was helping to “fuel” discrimination. Their ambition is clear – to maintain a divided society in order to maintain the power and wealth of these conservative, right-wing companies such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Moreover, the Leave Campaign during the Brexit vote relied heavily on anti-immigration rhetoric as well as the support of these media outlets in order to proliferate the standard trope that ‘immigrants are taking our jobs.’ Nigel Farage’s anti-immigration poster that showed lines of non-white refugees with the slogan ‘we must break free and take back control’ was a blatant attempt at scaremongering and inciting racial divisions.
Through these strategies the right has not only successfully created more divisions within the country than have been seen in recent years but also a regression in British foreign and economic policy with Europe. The powerful and wealthy use their influence over the media and politicians to influence the working class that it is the fault of someone of a different, ethnicity, religion or nationality as to why they are poor, not because the capitalist structure of the economy works on under paying labour in order to secure vast profit margins and bonuses for the boards. Immigration has been beneficial to this country as was abundantly clear throughout the coronavirus pandemic, without which the NHS would have fallen apart. It is important to not let the government and right-wing media outlets influence prejudice. As was clear in colonial India and Ireland, a divided people are weak and easily subjugated, a strong united population is one that can influence change and create opportunity and diversity.
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